How Trump damaged science — and why it could take decades to recover

Trump’s actions — and those of his staff and supporters — should come as no surprise. Over the past eight months, the president of the United States has lied about the dangers posed by the coronavirus and undermined efforts to contain it; he even admitted in an interview to purposefully misrepresenting the viral threat early in the pandemic. Trump has belittled masks and social-distancing requirements while encouraging people to protest against lockdown rules aimed at stopping disease transmission. His administration has undermined, suppressed and censored government scientists working to study the virus and reduce its harm. And his appointees have made political tools out of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ordering the agencies to put out inaccurate information, issue ill-advised health guidance, and tout unproven and potentially harmful treatments for COVID-19.

“This is not just ineptitude, it’s sabotage,” says Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University in New York City, who has modelled the evolution of the pandemic and how earlier interventions might have saved lives in the United States. “He has sabotaged efforts to keep people safe.”…

On the domestic front, many scientists fear that increased polarization and cynicism could last for years to come. That would make it harder for government agencies to do their jobs, to advance science-based policies, and to attract a new generation to replace many of the senior scientists and officials who have decided to retire under Trump.

Re-establishing scientific integrity in agencies where government scientists have been sidelined and censored by political appointees won’t be easy, says Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has documented more than 150 attacks on science under Trump’s tenure. “Under Trump, political appointees have the authority to override science whenever they want if it doesn’t conform to their political agenda,” Rosenberg says. “You can reverse that, but you have to do it very intentionally and very directly.”